Friday, July 11, 2014

Interview with Jeffrey Wechsler, Jim Horne's Fun Finds and New Pages, and Todd Gross's Reflections

NOTE:  The blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks (Friday, July 18, and Friday, July 25).  Posts will resume on Friday, August 1.

Interview with Jeffrey Wechsler

This week I'm delighted to present an interview with pre-Shortzian and Shortz-era constructor Jeffrey Wechsler!  Jeffrey recalls publishing three puzzles in the Weng era, though because of missing bylines, only one of them has been identified:  his July 17, 1969, themeless, which I'm featuring in today's post (see below).  This puzzle was published the day after the July 16 Apollo 11 moon mission launch, and since next week marks the 45th anniversary of that launch, I'm especially pleased to be able to publish Jeffrey's interview at such an opportune time!  To read more about Jeffrey and his remarkable return to constructing after a 40-year hiatus, click here or on the Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews tab above.

Photo courtesy of

Project Update

I'm also happy to report that this week has been busier on the litzing and proofreading fronts!  Late Sunday night, Todd Gross sent in 10 proofread puzzles.  Tuesday morning, Denny Baker sent 7 reassigned litzed puzzles, putting us at 16,019 on the thermometer.  Wednesday night, Tracy Bennett sent in 31 proofread puzzles.  And early Friday morning, Todd sent in 10 more proofread puzzles.  Thanks so much again, everyone—we're closing in on the end of the 1973 proofreading!

Also, as the note at the top of today's post says, the blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks.  Litzers and proofreaders can continue to send in and request puzzle packets as usual, though there may be occasional delays in responding.  Among other things, I'll be attending the National Puzzlers' League convention in Maine, which promises to be an awesome four days (and nights!) of nonstop puzzling—I hope to see some of you there!

Jim Horne's Fun Finds and New Pages

Recently I received an e-mail from Jim Horne about some discoveries he'd made while looking through the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project database:
One of the most fun things about PSPP is that it shows many of the common tricks predate Shortz’s stewardship.  Take, for example, one of Jeff Chen’s favorite tricks — repeated answer words.  I added the pre-Shortz puzzles with repeated words here

Some of these are presumably unintentional, like ANON in this one

This one is clearly intentional and shows a fun coincidence.

This one is intentional and has an amazing 53 blocks for no apparent reason.  Nobody seemed to have qualms about Biblical quotes back then—of course everyone would know them!

This one seem unintentional but look!  The answer RESIN appears at 42 Across and at 65 Across, and the word Resin appears in the clue for 56 Down!!!  [Ed. note:  The litzed puzzle Jim was referring to contained a grid mistake; 65-Across  was supposed to have been RESEN.  A corrected copy of the puzzle has been sent to XWord Info.]
Really interesting, Jim—thanks so much for pointing all of these out!

Jim sent me some more observations and updates later:
I created a new page to track pangrams organized by constructor.  It's the first page I've written that is constructor-focused and combines pre-Shortz and Shortz-era constructors.  This is always iffy because the pre-Shortz data is sketchy in some cases, but this one is dramatic enough that I thought it would be interesting. 

I thought I'd mention another observation.  A commenter on Amy's blog mentioned that there was a pre-Shortz double-pangram on a Sunday.  In fact there were three.  (There are no Shortz-era double-pangram Sundays.)

In my pangram pages, I excluded Sundays (because the extra squares makes the feat less impressive) and rebus puzzles (because how do you even count those?).

I've changed that to include Sundays if they are double-pangrams or better.

The two pages on XWord Info show pangram data by date or by constructor (or this one to jump right to the older puzzles).

Thanks so much again, Jim, for all these great pages and observations!

Todd Gross's Reflections

Litzer, proofreader, and researcher/historian Todd Gross took some time recently to reflect on what inspires people to construct crosswords and wrote this thought-provoking piece:
I for one find it really fascinating (and more than a little humbling) how accomplished several constructors have been in other areas of life.  Especially when, like Tanaquil Le Clercq (think someone might use that name in a puzzle some day?—very scrabbly, and splits into two equal parts), it's in an area that would seem totally unrelated to crossword creation.  I'm motivated by trying to figure out the kind of people that would go to all the trouble of learning such an arcane craft that, for most people, doesn't pay well enough to even eke a living at, much less a really good living.  One would think many of these folk would try writing songs or screenplays instead, which can pay much better and give you a much wider sort of fame.

Also, puzzle creation doesn't seem to run much in families.  And, until fairly recently, nearly everyone who created crosswords did so alone, probably most learning their craft from editors' comments (where now there are books and all sorts of possibilities for feedback via the Internet).  So it's a lonely sort of craft, easy to fail at, takes lots of effort, and often offers little in the way of fame or financial reward.  Yet all kinds of folk were still driven to do it.  Not just once or twice to see their name in the paper, but as a kind of ongoing obsession.

In my case, it's a chance for me to use my creative and analytic sides to create something that (if published) may be enjoyed by millions of folk.  That's just amazing to me, as a guy who can't hold even a basic sort of job.  Sinbad the comedian once said that being a comic was really the only thing he could do for a living; I feel kind of similar about puzzles.  I'm lucky I don't need to make a living at this, and really lucky there's a kind of community where I can join with like-minded folk and feel like I belong.  Here in the middle of the desert, not so much.

So I'll keep at this maddening obsession, even putting up with all the rejections I get, as long as I feel there's an audience out there that likes what I make.  And hey, even a little money helps when I can get it.

Sorry I rambled so long, but we folk who are really interested in crossword history are an even more arcane bunch than puzzle creators, methinks.
Thanks again, Todd, for these enGROSSing reflections!

Featured Puzzle

Now for some more about Jeffrey Wechsler's Weng-edited debut puzzle from July 17, 1969!  Even though the puzzle has 48 blocks, which is more than we would typically see nowadays, that Jeffrey was able to keep the word count down to 72 is impressive.  I've seen innumerable themelesses from the '60s with 74, 76, and even 78 words that are chock-full of lively fill and are relatively clean, but it's rare to see these measures of quality in a pre-Shortzian themeless from this time period.  And Jeffrey definitely had (and still has) a knack for crossing fun entries without including too many iffy shorter ones—some of my favorites in this puzzle include HEINOUS, INFERNO, HERE'S TO YOU, MELODRAMA, FAIRIES, and CARAMEL!  The only entry that would probably cause today's solvers to raise an eyebrow is SPET, a piece of primarily pre-Shortzian crosswordese that was traditionally clued as "Small barracuda."  In sum, Jeffrey did an excellent job at constructing a puzzle that stands the test of nearly 50 years!  I hope he'll be able to identify more of his puzzles once they're on XWord Info; for now, though, I'll keep watching for his byline in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times!  Here's the answer grid for today's featured puzzle:

Friday, July 4, 2014

1974 Puzzles Up; Todd Gross on Tanaquil Le Clercq, Irene Smullyan, and Harold T. Bers; July Litzer of the Month Stephen Edward Anderson; and Crossword Talk

Happy 4th of July!  It's been slower going leading up to this holiday weekend, but we've still made good progress, and there's lots of news to report, starting with the puzzles.  On Wednesday morning, Denny Baker sent in 8 reassigned litzed puzzles; then I sent him another one, and late that afternoon, he sent the litzed puzzle back.  Then Friday morning, Nancy Kavanaugh sent in 3 more reassigned puzzles, putting her personal total at exactly 1,200 litzed puzzles (congratulations, Nancy!) and the litzing thermometer at 16,012!  Thanks so much, Denny and Nancy!

In addition, I was able to finish assembling the proofread 1974 puzzles for XWord Info and, thanks to Jim Horne, they're now up!  Click here to see them.  Next week I'll have more on Jim's database discoveries!

Todd Gross's Pearls from the Past 

Tanaquil Le Clercq

Photo courtesy of

Litzer, proofreader, and historian Todd Gross has been very busy recently continuing his research on pre-Shortzian constructors!  He remembered that Tanaquil Le Clercq had been on my original list of constructors whose genders I was seeking and wrote:
[T]here's a famous dancer by that name, so famous she has a Wikipedia page.  As you can tell, it is a she.  Sounds like her life was a real mixture of tragedy and triumph.  Someone even created a documentary about her.

OK, so I found someone with the same unusual name as our constructor.  Is it the same person?  Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can confirm that it is.  Because of a comment made by a reader of an obituary of her in The Guardian.
Someone named Patricia Lousada added a lengthy comment to the obituary, including the following:

She was a talented portrait photographer, and an avid crossword puzzler from both sides of the grid; the New York Times published several of her invention[s]. 
Irene Smullyan

Photo courtesy of Dan Smullyan

And Todd also discovered more about pre-Shortzian constructor Irene Smullyan:
I found an online reference to a Daniel Smullyan working for the Columbia Daily Spectator.  Well, that's the paper [New York Times constructor] Finn Vigeland writes for, so I sent him a Facebook message (again, the magic of the Internet) asking if he knew Dan Smullyan.  Finn replied that not only did he know Dan, he knew that he was the son of a constructor!
With Finn's help, Todd was able to contact Dan Smullyan and interview him—here's Todd's writeup:
First of all, he corrected a mistake I'd made in the blog article.  Rema wasn't born in Russia.  The Lapouses actually left Russia in 1907 (Sophie and Alexander were revolutionaries) and moved to Paris before moving to the U.S. near Boston.  Rema was actually born in Paris.  By the way, you probably wonder why I mentioned Rema: it's because I saw several references to her online, though I hadn't really investigated them.  It turns out she was an M.D. who was prominent in the areas of epidemiology and mental disorders.  So prominent, in fact, that the American Public Health Association named an award after her.
That's why I was seeing her name so often.  While I'm here, I'll note that when her husband died (a prominent medical expert himself), the NYT ran an obituary on him that mentions Rema.
OK, enough about Rema.  Dan's mother, Irene, was, in his words, a brilliant woman who was always doing puzzles, including the Sunday NYT crossword, and one day had the idea to try her hand at constructing.  She started with daily puzzles, [and] like most of us she wasn't successful at first, but ETM saw potential and encouraged her.  As the "mother" puzzle shows, she was able to work her way up to creating Sunday puzzles.  She was excited to work with ETM (apparently the only person she submitted puzzles to), though he could be curmudgeonly.  Dan thinks she might have met ETM once in Florida (which would have been near when he passed away) but isn't sure.
Dan also mentioned that not only are Raymond Smullyan and Robert Sloan Smullyan first cousins (who were more like brothers with each other than cousins), but Raymond was the one who introduced Robert and Irene (though Dan isn't sure of the details).  By the way, Dan mentioned how his father has works in the Met and created one particularly famous war image, which you can see here.
So all around just a remarkable pair of families joined by marriage.
I asked Dan what he wanted to readers to know about his mother that wasn't already covered.  He said that she was a  wonderful, intelligent, creative, amazing person, a "force of nature."
I'm including the photo Dan sent me, as well as an obituary of Irene from Harvard Magazine, which apparently his sister wrote.  She is apparently something of an expert on obituary writing, according to Dan.
One more thing I should say.  At the start of the interview, Dan said his mother would be thrilled with the interest in her puzzles.  So a thank you from the great beyond.

Harold T. Bers

Photo courtesy of The Violet.

Finally, Todd dug up some fascinating details about pre-Shortzian constructor Harold T. Bers:
I want to tell you about some more information I found.  This time, about legendary crossword constructor Harold T. Bers.  And I mean that literally.  You do a search on him in Google, you see an entry on him in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Heck, you even see him mentioned in the article on crossword puzzles in EB.  And both credit him with creating the so-called "internal clue crossword."  An article in the Chicago Reader even says Margaret Farrar "credited constructor Harold T. Bers with inventing the themed puzzle."  Wow!
I don't know whether this is true or not (I'm not yet familiar with the early days of themed crosswords), but it sure sounds like a tall tale to me.  So I'm really curious to see what I can find out about him.  I found some stuff on him in, but I found more interesting stuff in other places.  A 1949 blurb that mentions a promotion he got at the ad agency he was working for at the time:

A short list of some fiction he wrote (which maybe could be looked up somewhere):
I found another article that apparently mentions Mr. Bers, this time in The New Yorker magazine.
And, most significantly, an obituary from The New York Times.  The obit credits him with "the so-called inner clue feature in crossword puzzles."  I really like how they called that into question there . . . while admitting that yeah it's out there.  But I also really like how the obituary talks about the man more generally, including mentioning his family (who maybe could give a clearer picture of the man).  Note he passed away at 47, which can certainly add to one's legendary status.
Todd also found the above photo of Bers, which was originally from the 1933 edition of the New York University yearbook, The Violet.  The photo shows "what the man looked like . . . before he became a legend."

Thanks so much again, Todd, for all this great research!  It really brings the pre-Shortzian constructors to life!

July Litzer of the Month

We're in a new month, and New York Times constructor Stephen Edward Anderson, who lives what sounds like an idyllic life in Italy, is the July Litzer of the Month!  To read more about Stephen, click here or on the Litzer of the Month tab above.  Grazie, Stephen!

Crossword Talk

I was delighted to give a talk recently about the project and crosswords in general at the Newport Beach Public Library, where I saw solver extraordinaire Eric Maddy!  The audience was small but engaged, and I even spotted a couple of people solving puzzles before the talk began!  Here's a photo that was taken at the library's entrance: